Waterstones has apologised and said it is "deeply embarrassed" after award-winning author Derek Owusu was asked for ID in a London branch when he offered to sign copies of his books.
Owusu's agent Crystal Mahey-Morgan said her faith in the industry had been “shaken” by the author's experience at Waterstones in Covent Garden on 13th January, which he raised with fellow writers before posting about the incident on Twitter.
Waterstones said it is "incredulous and dismayed" and has investigated the incident, which it said involved a temporary worker. The chain said it would stress to its booksellers "how to handle" authors coming in to sign, branding the demand for ID "wholly inappropriate and discourteous in the extreme".
Owusu said the experience was one of three similar incidents he had faced, though never in an indie bookshop. "Sometimes when I'm just around a Waterstones I will walk in and ask if I can sign copies for them," he told The Bookseller. "Normally they say 'wow, yes please' and hand me a sharpie and I sign away.
"Foyles Charing Cross asked for ID, so I just opened the book up to the [author picture] and said 'well look, it's me'. In my head I tried to rationalise it — I mean it makes sense, you should make sure it's the author. But then again who is really going to go into a bookshop and sign a book by another author? It's not like I just walked in and started scribbling in the book."
He added: "Yesterday I was at Waterstones in Covent Garden, I was buying a book for myself, then I saw one of my books on the shelf, so I thought I'd ask if it was okay to sign a couple. When I went up to the till the bookseller looked at me and said 'yeah, sure have you got any ID?'
"There was a woman next to him who looked really uncomfortable, so then I felt uncomfortable. It suddenly clicked — this is kind of strange I keep getting asked this. So I pulled out my driving licence and showed my ID, he checked it and said 'that's fine' — even though the name on my driving licence isn't even Derek Owusu.
"I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. So I asked him is it normal that people come in and sign books that don't belong to them? He replied 'no, but in theory it could happen'.
“Really strange. I was dancing around what I knew just happened. Really odd. It's a frustrating thing to happen, I'm just really perplexed about it".
Owusu's first novel That Reminds Me (Merky) won the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. In 2019 he collated, edited and contributed to Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (Trapeze), an anthology exploring the experiences of Black men. Last year, he signed a two-book deal with Canongate.
In a thread on Twitter, fellow author Alex Wheatle said he had had the same experience as Owusu, especially in his early career when he “would roll up to the Borders stores in London".
Mahey-Morgan, who is publisher and co-c.e.o. of literary, film and TV agency and publisher OWN IT!, said: "As an agent and publisher, having the confidence that booksellers and retailers will approach their jobs with complete unbiased, and an anti-racist or classist approach is crucial to me believing in this industry.
"Unfortunately, once again my belief in the industry has been shaken. Bookshops should be a safe space for all to feel welcome and included, especially for authors who are the heart and soul of what we all do, and a lifeline to so many readers.
"It can take years to make progress but only moments to undo trust and credibility. I hope that as an industry we can get to the stage where real change happens behind the scenes when no one is looking, as much as it does on centre stage where everyone is shouting. These are not political conversations, they are deeply personal ones where the people who are being marginalised and excluded, be they authors, readers or Black and Brown-owned publishers, feel the effects of being excluded and misconceived, deeply."
In a statement, a spokesperson for Waterstones said: "We are incredulous and dismayed that any bookseller would ask an author for their ID when they have offered to sign their books. Of course, rogue individuals will, from time to time, want to sign books of which they are not the author. Any sensible bookseller can discretely and easily compare the author photo – present on almost every book — and, if there is an obvious mismatch, make a joke of it.
"They should never ask for an ID and to do so, even in the eccentric circumstances of a rogue signing, is unprofessional. That Derek Owusu was asked for his ID is wholly inappropriate and discourteous in the extreme. It was the action of an individual bookseller acting completely contrary to our expectation of professional bookselling. We apologise sincerely and are deeply embarrassed that this happened.
"Our shop management team has investigated. We understand that the bookseller involved was working for us temporarily over Christmas. Evidently, they were inexperienced and their behaviour is very disappointing. We had not included any specific training about handling authors coming in to sign their books, thinking this to be self-evident. Now that we know better, we are to reiterate to all our bookselling teams how to handle authors coming in to sign. We will do everything we can to ensure nothing like this will occur again."
Mahey-Morgan, who is publishing An Abolitionist's Handbook by co-founder of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Cullors later this month, said she has been in touch with Waterstones and "looks forward to working with James Daunt and the team in the coming weeks to try to ensure that no author (or indeed reader) ever has to suffer from feeling excluded in this way again".